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PAPE‘ETE, French Polynesia (March 1, 2001 - Oceania Flash/SPC)---The first black pearls auction of the year in French Polynesia was deemed a disappointment due to low attendance by international buyers, the daily newspaper La Dépêche de Tahiti reports.

Tahiti Pearl Producers (TPP) President Franck Tehaamatai said that of 169 lots auctioned earlier this week, only 132 were sold. He also said the lots were sold at lower than expected prices.

The two-day sale at Pape'ete's Sheraton Hotel netted 608 million French Pacific Francs (US$ 4,735,619). Producers had anticipated netting 750 million CFP (US$ 5,841,636).

International buyers attending the auction came from Japan, Hong Kong, France, Spain, Australia, and Hawai‘i.

TPP embarked on a "clean-up" operation last year aimed at preserving high quality standards to deter the sale of cheaper, lower quality pearls.

Producers are now wondering whether they should lower their prices.

"Maybe we are wrong after all. Maybe we should bring our prices down. But, if it were to happen, I think it's not even worth cultivating pearls. There is a bottom price below which you cannot go," Tehaamatai said.

In light of this week's setback, TPP is currently considering forming a centralized buying syndicate, which would ensure minimum prices and lure smaller producers who are discounting their pearls.

"At the moment, they are panicking and end up selling their production at very low prices. Our move would give the black pearl its value back. This is in the interest of the pearl industry and the whole economy that revolves around it," a TPP spokesman said.

TPP said the next auction would be organized for July 14-15.

Meanwhile, the pearl industry in the neighboring Cook Islands is also in a crisis. A disease struck the island state's pearl farms last year, costing the company about US$ 34 million in loss revenue over the next five years.

The oyster stocks are expected to take five years to rebuild and return to normal production levels.

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